Baffert vs Pletcher – Head to Head

Before I anoint Mr. Baffert as the landslide victor in this matchup, let me remind everyone of the class exhibited by Mr. Pletcher after this year’s running of the Kentucky Derby.

As we all know, big time favorite Uncle Mo was a late scratch, and regular Pletcher jock Johnny Velasquez picked up the mount on eventual winner Animal Kingdom. To add insult to injury, another highly touted Pletcher star, Stay Thirsty, was an immense disappointment on Derby day (which has since changed significantly). Anyway, the first man I see congratulating Mr. Velasquez on his Derby triumph was none other than Todd Pletcher, who slapped Johnny V on the leg, gave him a handshake/hug, and expressed such joy for JV’s win – even in the face of a most disappointing week for his own stable.

Hell, I rarely seem him that excited for himself when he wins big races! We often talk about racehorses displaying class, but that, my friends, is what a classy trainer looks like. Now, unfortunately, I have to explain why I believe he loses the conditioning battle to Bob Baffert.

The Factor vs. Uncle Mo

An easy place to start: how has each trainer handled his best horse coming off a forced layoff? The Factor came back in the Pat O’Brien Stakes out at Del Mar and scored a 7F victory after battling early for the lead. That 7F was covered in 1:21.56, the fastest of the meet. Smiling Tiger, the colt he battled early? He’d won 3 graded stakes for sprinters this year, he was no pushover. Not too shabby coming off a hairline fracture. Baffert himself exclaimed: “I’d forgotten how good he was until the last few times I worked him from the gate.” What? Working from the gate, twice? Sure enough, here is the worktab:

Horse Name Date Dist Time Cond. B/H
The Factor 09/21/2011 6F 1:11.20 Fast H
09/14/2011 5F :59.60 Fast H
09/07/2011 5F 1:00.60 Fast H
08/20/2011 6F 1:10.00 Fast Gate
08/14/2011 6F 1:10.80 Fast Gate
08/08/2011 6F 1:13.20 Fast H
08/01/2011 5F 1:00.40 Fast H
07/26/2011 4F :49.00 Fast H

That makes four separate 6F works, two from a gated start, prior to his comeback 7F effort.
Contrast that with the routine for Uncle Mo prior to his comeback race, the 7F King’s Bishop:

Horse Name Date Dist Time Cond. B/H
Uncle Mo 09/18/2011 5F :59.44 Fast B
09/11/2011 4F :48.30 Fast B
08/21/2011 5F :59.95 Fast B
08/14/2011 5F 1:00.34 Fast B
08/09/2011 5F 1:00.22 Fast B
08/03/2011 5F 1:02.80 Fast B
07/28/2011 4F :50.49 Fast B
07/22/2011 3F :38.40 Fast B

And this is aggressive for Pletcher, before the Wood Memorial disappointment last spring, Mo was fed a weekly diet of 4F breezes.

Small wonder why Uncle Mo had a perfect trip in his return engagement, yet still looked mighty tired down the lane and was unable to hold off Caleb’s Posse. This is a common pattern for these two trainers: Baffert actually works his horses into shape, and Pletcher prefers the old horseman’s adage: ‘He needs a race’.  For stakes horses of this caliber, 5F means almost nothing in terms of fitness – it is, and should be, quite easy for them. It is only after this 5F where any true stamina is developed, and Pletcher doesn’t push his past the wire like Baffert does. Which segues nicely into my next point.

West Coast Gallop Outs

Just this morning, Coil worked a full mile in 1:38 at Santa Anita, coming off a poor effort in the Travers. A week earlier, Game On Dude similarly worked a mile in the 1:38 neighborhood. Even when the clockers mis-judge the work length and turn in a standard 5F/1:01 – Baffert’s west coast brigade often maintain 12-13sec/f paces around the turn and onto the backside. Meanwhile, back East, Pletcher puts his minions through 4F works 90% of the time, a few select ones travel 5F – with much less aggressive gallop outs. Keep in mind, Pletcher’s lone Kentucky Derby champ, Super Saver, never had a recorded work over 5F in his career.

‘Baffert breaks horses down’

I hear this one quite a bit from those who prefer Pletcher’s methods. Look, when you are more aggressive in training – you are gonna get more injuries in the mornings. But, when you are more conservative in preparation, you will suffer more injuries on raceday. Horses are athletes, and athletes get hurt. I’d prefer getting hurt while trying to get better with 6F breezes from the gate, rather than going into a race ‘short’ and struggling home the last furlong. Both of these guys start with 100+ 2yo each season in order to get a handful to the graded stakes level.

Baffert and Usain Bolt

As you can see in the above image, this is the old white guy’s version of the winning pose often struck by human sprint star, Jamaican Usain Bolt. The fact that Baffert trots this pose out occasionally leads me to believe he pays some attention to human track events, and possibly has a passing interest in the exercise physiology that underlies all performance, human and equine. Working a horse from the gate is like weightlifting for a horse – as he gets to jump off the first few strides from a standstill he stresses the hind end musculature much more than if he rolls into the breeze.

If you want to test your trainer’s knowledge about this stuff, ask him a simple question: “What does a horse’s spleen do during exercise?” Be prepared for a blank stare in most cases. Look elsewhere on this blog for the answer.

Zipse: Classic performances and earnings per start

I had contemplated writing this post for weeks, and in the meantime Brian Zipse beat me to the punch with this excellent point/counterpoint article at HorseRacingNation:

Mr. Zipse sides with myself, and here are the stats he used to illustrate his argument:

Pletcher has won 2 Triple Crown races while Baffert has won 9. He doesn’t mention the number of starts, but I believe it’s safe to say that Pletcher has had a larger number of entries. Again, Pletcher’s stable numbers overpower most, but when success is defined as ‘doing more with less’ Baffert wins the Earnings Per Start battle comfortably: $27,815 to $17,785. Two of Baffert’s Derby winners: Real Quiet and Silver Charm, could have both been had public auction for a combined total of just $102,000.

On a personal note, my beloved Aunt Pearl passed away last holiday season at age 58 due to a blood cancer named Multiple Myeloma. This November I am running the NYC Marathon in her memory – one day after the Breeder’s Cup here in Louisville, and she sure loved the ponies. The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation is a major cancer fighting group, and I am proud to raise money for their cause in honor of my dear aunt.

Anyone who wishes to may donate securely here:


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on September 21, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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